By this point, enough people have stated publicly that we live in a society with no unifying mythology – that is, no invisible means of support – that I feel confident enough to assume that I don’t have to offer evidence to support it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have myths. We do – our popular culture is suffused with the same old timeless tales retold again and again. And unlike the hoary old religious traditions that used to hold Western Civilization together, popular culture changes with the times, breathing fresh life into the old archetypes and presenting them in ways that make sense to modern eyes (I am not generally a fan of popular culture and there are many examples of the entertainment industry screwing up what should be a cake walk, but I’m warming up to something here, so let’s just go with.)
The example that I want to work with is the Harry Potter books and movies, which my eight-year-old daughter, referred to here as the Spotted Opossum, got into a few seasons ago and which have held her interest far longer than magical ponies or Dora the Explora ever could. We’ve watched the movies repeatedly and have begun to read the books together – they’re just beyond her reading level and we both enjoy reading together at bedtime. The Potter series are modern examples of classic myth. I don’t know if J.K. Rowling intended that, or if she was just using the standard tropes of young adult fiction, which are the same as adult fiction, but a little more obvious. Either way, the nail was hit square on the head.
A young orphan, raised in a hostile environment, on the cusp of puberty, is ushered into a world previously undreamed of. A wise, old sage takes the boy under his wing. Obstacles are met and dealt with, often using magical weapons that appear just when needed. The student must submit to training and must face his inner daemons, but there are many pleasures along the way – friendships, the pleasures of love and sexuality, the joy of mastering various arts and skills. There is also death. And the cycle concludes with an epic battle in which the forces of good, besieged and hopeless, must fight an army led by an evil, bigoted despot. Good people die in the battle and people who we knew as weak, ineffectual or just not the fighting kind turn out to be more powerful than we expected. Victory is won. And our hero resists the final temptation – he refuses to wield “the most powerful wand in the world”, recognizing it as more power than a bad man should have or a good man should want.
This is just about perfect. Rowling has done an excellent job with the material and the public has grabbed hold. When the Potter craze began in the ‘00’s, I thought I could safely ignore what appeared to be a fad for people younger than me. I had no idea that I’d someday know as much about Potter’s wizarding world as anybody, or that I’d work with young people who had grown up knowing which of the Hogwarts Houses they belonged to. I certainly never thought that I’d know which House I fit into – I’m not going to say, but I think it should be obvious. The Potter craze shows no signs of letting up, judging from the amount of new merchandise I keep seeing.
If you’re waiting for the “but” that must surely be coming, it’s about to happen.
The Harry Potter series is great, but I think the point is being missed in the same way that the point is so often missed when it comes to myth. The ubiquitous merchandise – spin-off books and movies, T-shirts and other garments, bumperstickers, coffee mugs ad infinitum – makes it plain that many people are happy to collect gimcracks and gewgaws, to be active participants in a commercial franchise. That isn’t inherently wrong – my daughter has a “Hogwarts” T-shirt and a few other Potter-related items - but there is such greater potential within the Harry Potter saga that it’s almost tragic to see people collect the ephemera without realizing the hidden depths because the entire point of any and all myth is to help individuals realize the enormities of their own experience of life.
The first thing one should do with a myth is identify with the main character. It doesn’t matter what the race, gender, national origin of the character is relative to one’s own – you are the main character of your own life. In the case of Potter then, the reader of the books or viewer of the films is to identify with the character Harry Potter and ask themselves “How do these symbols match up to my own experience?” “How can I learn, from this story, to embrace my own story, to avoid certain pitfalls which will cause pain to myself and those around me, and to eliminate those daemons in my own psyche which will stand in the way of my achieving my goals?” “How does this story instruct me?” Asking questions such as these will always be beneficial. All works of fiction can be so examined and all will yield answers – though many will simply serve as examples of what not to do.
Harry Potter presents the same qualities as desirable that all myths do: bravery, loyalty, determination, willingness to work, willingness to sacrifice one’s immediate desires for the greater good, willingness to die for one’s cause and willingness to live humbly for same. The hero recognizes that there are times when it is right to submit to instruction and times when it is right to defy authority – and learns to tell the difference. Appearances can’t always be trusted – one must be able to trust the voice within. These are lessons that anyone would do well to embrace. And the symbols offered by Potter, the characters who serve as archetypes, are as good as any from any myth cycle. Few of us will find ourselves in direct conflict with an individual as powerful and evil as Voldemort, but all of us will experience conflicts with entities more faceless and destructive. All of us, if we choose to resist the forces that constantly strive to strip us of our individuality, will have to battle against enemies which appear to be far beyond our abilities, sometimes alone and without hope. All of us will find ourselves facing off against overwhelming odds. And all of us, if we choose to hold to what we know to be right, will succeed in our own story.
Those who know the Potter cycle may point out that there are numerous characters who fight for good and die along the way. What about them? What about Mad-Eye Moody? Lupin and Tonks? What about Harry’s parents? The obvious answer is that those are supporting characters, not the ones with whom one should identify, despite the fact that their personalities or characteristics may be more similar to one’s own. Other people will come into your life and serve important roles, will help you along the way, but ultimately, you are called to pursue your own course – not necessarily the course you would like, but the one that you are called to – Harry Potter does not volunteer to be “the Chosen One”; he clearly doubts his fitness for the role and accepts it very reluctantly. You may not want the calling you receive. Many characters in many myths initially reject the call, preferring a simpler, easier life. They either come around and embrace their appointed/anointed role or perish – consumed in the belly of the whale or torn apart by daemons. Also true – each of the supporting characters stars in her/his own story. Harry Potter survives and achieves victory – and his reward is a life. He goes on to marry his sweetheart and have kids who grow up. One assumes he has good days and bad days. Maybe his boss is a jerk. Answering the call, living the life of a Hero does not guarantee material success or freedom from minor irritants.
Not long after the Spotted Opossum got into the Potter books, she was talking about being one of the characters for Halloween, Hermione Granger, for girlish reasons. I was not thoroughly familiar with the characters yet, hadn’t seen all the movies. I asked who I would be, if I dressed up. After a moment of consideration, she said “Well, with that face, you’d have to be Sirius Black.” The way she phrased it was amusing – “with that face” being a standard set-up for an insult. I looked forward to finding out who “Sirius Black” was, to seeing this character that my daughter thought was most like me. When we watched The Prisoner of Azkaban, it was obvious – Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman, is a scruffy, bearded man with black tattoos, not unlike myself. Beneath the surface, Black is Harry’s father figure, not always present as I am not always present in my daughter’s life, but significant nonetheless; possessing knowledge and power which Harry doesn’t have; able to guide and protect. Ultimately, Black dies, slipping away through a mysterious archway. Harry mourns this death, but continues on his own journey. This is exactly how my daughter should view me. As Black is to Harry, I am a supporting character in her life story. Eventually, I will die and she will live on, hopefully benefitting from my teaching and remembering me fondly, but certainly living on. My daughter is a wise soul – I believe she knows, on some level, how appropriate her choice to assign me the part of Sirius is.
Death in service to the greater good is – as far as myth is concerned – victory. None of us can expect or hope to usher in a glorious new age of Perfect Peace on Earth. All of us will die before we have completed our work, whether we die in battle at twenty or in bed at one-hundred-twenty. Death is as nothing, not worthy of consideration. Our job is to live, to truly live. To live truly, as individuals acting out of the center of our true selves, responding to the small, still voice within, doing what we know to be right. Any life so lived is heroic.
So, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying popular entertainments or collecting the ephemera of same. But to stop at that, when there is so much more available is tragic and sad. The hoary old religious traditions of the world are not dissimilar. One can attach too much importance to the externals, get caught up in the prohibitions and forms, and hold too tightly to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of it. Christ said as much. The ancient Zen masters ruffled plenty of feathers insulting the Buddha. Hui Neng famously said the Sutras were good only for wiping one’s ass. The point is to see the Truth behind the symbol, to know reality in the Biblical sense – to experience it personally and intimately. If wearing a T-shirt proclaiming your allegiance to one of the Hogwarts Houses helps you remember that, do so.